Tribe sues Nebraska officials over doctor riff

By Margery A. Beck
Omaha, Nebraska (AP) July 2011

An American Indian tribe is suing Nebraska health officials and the state attorney general, accusing them of ignoring a new provision in the federal health overhaul law that allows tribes to hire doctors not licensed by the state in which they practice.

The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the doctor it hired, Rosa M. Huguet, filed the lawsuit in Omaha’s U.S. District Court. Huguet, who is licensed in Puerto Rico, was hired last July after the federal health care law was enacted as the director and only doctor of the tribe’s Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center in Omaha.

Before enactment of the federal health care law, tribal doctors had to be licensed by the state within whose boundaries he or she would practice. The new law allows tribal doctors simply to hold a license in any of the 50 states, the District of Columbia or a U.S. territory, the lawsuit says.

Despite that, state officials have refused to recognize Huguet and have ordered her to stop practicing, the tribe contends.

“Plaintiffs have been left with no choice but to bring this action to force the defendant state officials to comply with federal law,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit names various division heads of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, members of the health agency’s Nebraska Board of Medicine and Surgery and state Attorney General Jon Bruning.

A spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Department said her agency hadn’t been served with the lawsuit and hadn’t reviewed it, and therefore could not comment on it. Bruning’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Messages left for Donald Lee, the chief operating officer of Tribal Health Programs, and the Ponca Tribe’s attorney, Brad Jolly of Brighton, Colo., seeking comment were not immediately returned.

The tribe first experienced trouble over the hire of Huguet when it asked the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to change paperwork to reflect Huguet’s name and the new name of the clinic.

In response to the request, the state’s health licensing coordinator noted that Huguet did not have a Nebraska medical license, according to the lawsuit. The tribe pointed to the new provisions of the federal law, but several days later, the coordinator informed the tribe that the state agency’s attorneys had determined that Huguet’s Puerto Rico medical license was not sufficient.

“Dr. Huguet is not serving as a member of the United States Public Health Service, and therefore does not meet the statutory exemption to needing a license found in” Nebraska law, the coordinator wrote, according to the lawsuit.

Tribal officials brought the lawsuit after learning that the state health agency’s Board of Medicine and Surgery had referred the matter of Huguet’s licensing to the Nebraska Attorney General’s office, seeking to prevent her from practicing in the state.

“Although the tribe has continuously attempted to resolve this matter with the defendants, defendants have blatantly ignored federal law ... and proceeded to act in contravention of their obligation to follow and comply with federal law regardless of conflicting state law,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order to keep the state from taking any action against them or Huguet regarding her medical license and a judgment stating that Huguet’s Puerto Rico medical license is sufficient to meet the licensing standard under federal law.

The tribe and Huguet also ask to have court costs and attorneys’ fees paid by the state.